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Special rules for digital materials.

How does copyright apply to digital materials?
What about digital materials in class websites?
What can I do to minimize copyright infringement of digital materials?

How does copyright apply to digital materials?

Copyrights exist for digitally created materials just as they do for more traditional media of expression and publication. By and large, digital materials—whether they are text, images, sounds, or video—should be treated the same as materials in more traditional, “hard” forms of publication.

Appearance on a website to which the general public can gain access should be considered as published. Posting on the Internet does not mean that a work is in the public domain. This is also true for audio or video files that could be accessed and downloaded by the general public

Downloading and saving a copy should be treated like making a hard copy. Printing out a copy onto paper would be another copy. In either case, the work in question is being reproduced onto an enduring medium.

Sharing a copy of a file is considered distribution. You can turn over your one copy to someone else, just as you might give someone a book after you have finished reading it. However, you can’t make a copy and give it to someone, just like you can’t keep the book you bought but make a photocopy of the whole book for someone else.

Modifying a downloaded file can be considered creating a derivative work. This would also be a potential copyright infringement.

Streaming for immediate viewing or listening, but not downloading, is analogous to watching or listening to a performance. However, a display for people outside of the class for which the file was downloaded could be considered a performance and thus copyright infringement.

The federal legislation most relevant to the use of digitally created or transmitted materials is the TEACH Act. The general purpose of this Act is to extend the rules and concepts of fair use for educational purposes to digitally-based materials. However, materials posted on the Internet present some special challenges for those who wish to use them for educational purposes.

Websites themselves are copyrighted materials—even if the individual components are not. Websites do represent creative work fixed onto an enduring medium somewhere. Even if the site is a compilation of non-copyrighted units, it is still protected by copyright. It is like an anthology. Even if the works collected together are in the public domain, that particular way of organizing them and the creative work involved in selecting those particular works is copyrighted. Hence, links to websites should avoid going past levels that include identification of the author of the site. You might think of it as analogous to citing the anthology or volume from which you have selected a chapter or article.

Even e-mail could be copyrighted. It is fully protected just like a paper letter that has original content. Publishing or forwarding an e-mail could be considered copyright infringement.

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What about digital materials in class websites?

Posting materials on a password-protected site for a class (such as a WebCT course shell) is generally analogous to presenting materials in class. You are more likely to be covered by the principles of fair use because you are only providing access to students in the class. The biggest problem is that students can “walk away” from your digital classroom with a copy of the music, performance, poem, etc., which they could share with others in a way that they could not when they walk away from an on-campus class.

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What can you do to minimize copyright infringement of digital materials?

You might want to consider including a notice with any digital materials you post for your class that reminds students that the material in question could be copyrighted. You might also want to consider including a notice to discourage the unauthorized copying of any site to which you have created a link. You are providing this one copy for their use for the duration of your class only. Any copy that a student makes should be for his or her personal use only. Disclaimers will not automatically protect you from liability. However, they could be part of a fair use defense.

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For more information, please visit the More Resources section.

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Remember that copyright is an area where there is still much ambiguity. Future legislation and court decisions will continue to shape copyright law. Information provided on this website should not be construed as legal advice.